Part IV - North Korea's Coming Out Party
Hosting the Olympics for the first time is usually regarded as a country’s “coming out party”, letting the world see that they are capable of massive and complex infrastructure projects as well as having developed the diplomatic skills necessary to coordinate an event with tens of thousands of participants and countless visitors from around the world.
This was the case for South Korea in 1988 and China in 2008.
For North Korea, many view their coming out event as the year 2018 itself. In 2018, North Korea attempted to woo their southern cousins during the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics at the beginning of the year and followed it up with a summit in Singapore with the United States on June 12. For the first time in history, a sitting North Korean leader and a sitting American president sat across from each other at the same table. However, when Kim Jong-un first ascended to power, few thought such a meeting would ever be possible.
Kim Jong-un had very little diplomatic experience during his short grooming period and the North Korean diplomatic corps was, naturally, dominated by those who had served exclusively under Kim Jong-il. Making matters more difficult is the very limited range of independence North Korean diplomats have to adapt to what the moment requires. Rather, they’re often limited to repeating talking points and must seek authorization for even minor changes.
This has handicapped the vast majority of exchanges with North Korea and has often led to the collapse of talks. Regardless, an election in the U.S. and the openness of South Korean president Moon Jae-in created the opportunity for Kim Jong-un to engage with the world much more than his father, the insular-looking Kim Jong-Il.
And so, the world witnessed something of a miracle in 2018, but that year has become bookended by assassinations and nuclear tests before and aggressive stances and missile tests since. How the miracle year came about and where things seem to be going in the aftermath is what I hope to share in this article.
Early Moves, Fire & Fury
Early diplomatic outreaches by Kim Jong-un’s new regime followed long-established cycles of provocation followed by promises to talk in exchange for aid or sanctions relief, only to be followed by a period of provocation again. This was the case with the ‘Leap Day’ deal reached on Feb. 29, 2012 that would have allowed inspectors into the Yongbyon nuclear research site. However, the agreement was discarded a few weeks later as North Korea announced they would launch a satellite into space which the United States viewed as a violation of the agreement.
This cycle continued through to the election of Donald Trump in Nov. 2016. Although, while still firing missiles and testing nuclear weapons, the election seemed to provide Kim Jong-un with an opening to reach out to the U.S. as Trump relied more on his personal relationships with people than he relied on previous policy decisions or protocol. President Trump had also made it clear that he was willing to talk to anyone, including Putin and Xi Jinping, regardless of human rights abuses, if it meant improved bilateral relations and avoiding greater conflicts.
However, this opening appeared to slam shut for Kim Jong-un following the assassination of his half-brother Kim Jong-nam. The 45-year-old Jong-nam had been living in self-imposed exile for years and spent most of his time visiting casinos in Macau, going to concerts, and living in luxury apartments. As Kim Jong-un took power, Kim Jong-nam began to openly criticize the hereditary succession and called on North Korea to reform its practices. This placed Jong-nam in the very dangerous position of being a possible locus of dissent for unhappy elites in Pyongyang who may also want the country to reform.
After Kim Jong-un had solidified his power within the country, he made the decision to take out this threat. On February 13, 2017, Kim Jong-nam was passing through the Kuala Lumpur International Airport in Malaysia where he was assaulted by two women, with one splashing him with a liquid and the other covering his face with a cloth.
The women were from Vietnam and Malaysia and had been told they were taking part in a TV prank show, but it was no prank. They had unknowingly exposed Jong-nam to the deadly and banned chemical weapon VX. He died soon after despite medical treatment.
The resulting backlash led to multiple countries (including Malaysia) recalling their ambassadors and closing embassies, leaving North Korea more isolated than ever.
But while the world looked on in horror at the assassination, it was North Korea’s weapons testing that really got under President Trump’s skin.
Kim Jong-un tested four nuclear devices between 2013 and 2017, with each device being more powerful than the next. The United States’ intelligence community eventually assessed that Pyongyang indeed had the capability to produce a miniaturized nuclear warhead that could be mounted on a missile.
Following up on two nuclear tests in 2016, North Korea conducted a series of missile tests in 2017 that culminated in the successful testing of the Hwasong-14 on July 4 and a second test on July 28. The Hwasong-14 became North Korea’s first missile capable of hitting nearly all of the continental United States.
Celebrating the July 4 test, Kim Jong-un called the launch a “gift [to the] American bastards…” for the U.S. Independence Day holiday and told officials to “frequently send big and small ‘gift packages’ to the Yankees”.
These tests brought the North Korea crisis to a boiling point and serious discussions were held about attacking the country or conducting a ‘decapitation strike’ against Kim Jong-un. President Trump summed up his feelings on August 8, 2017 declaring, “North Korea best not make any more threats to the United States…they will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen.” And, partially in response to the killing of Kim Jong-nam with a chemical weapon in a third-party country, the U.S. also relisted North Korea as a state sponsor of terrorism that November.
It was under this shadow that South Korea prepared to host the 2018 Winter Olympic Games in the city of Pyeongchang. It was also at this point that back-channel discussions were ongoing to set up a new round of talks or even a summit to defuse the situation and avert war. After some uncertainty in 2017, North Korea had reached an agreement to participate in the 2018 Olympics on Jan. 9, 2018, but Pyongyang’s other aggressions were continuing and such a breakthrough event as a summit had yet to be formally agreed to by the time of the Games.
Onward to Pyeongchang
Although Kim Jong-un said in his 2018 New Years’ Address that “North Korea's participation in the Winter Games will be a good opportunity to showcase the national pride and we wish the Games will be a success”, their participation was still up in the air after North Korea had failed to meet a deadline, but then a final agreement was reached on Jan. 9.
North Korea’s agreement to take part in the games and have both country’s athletes walk in the opening ceremony together under the Unification Flag was a great step toward rebuilding trust and cooperation between each side of the DMZ.
At the same time, as during the 1988 Summer Olympic Games that were held in Seoul, it was also feared North Korea might seek to either co-opt the events or cause major disruptions. In the case of the 1988 Games, this took the shape of bombing Korean Air Flight 858 in the runup to the Olympics that killed 115 people. For 2018, Japan’s Foreign Minister Taro Kono warned Seoul to be warry of any “charm offensive” coming from Pyongyang and there was even some backlash among South Koreans, as the Moon administration signaled that it was willing to give into North Korean demands including things that could be seen to intrude on South Korea’s own rights as a sovereign nation and on civil liberties.
Thankfully, the worst that happened was North Korea condemning the continued U.S. military presence on the peninsula and the military cooperation between Washington and Seoul. However, a kind of co-opting did happen in the form of Kim Jong-un’s sister – Kim Yo-jong.
The announcement that Kim Jong-un’s younger sister would serve as his envoy during the games helped to turn opposition into curiosity as a central member of the Kim family would be visiting South Korea in one of the biggest diplomatic moves since the Korean War.
Kim Yo-jong’s ‘cool personality' and appearance played well with the South Korean public and was evocative of the ‘Kim Jong-il mania’ that swept the country in 2000 following the first inter-Korean Summit as a result of South Korea’s Sunshine Policy that saw a dramatic, though temporary, rise in pro-North sentiment among the general public.
In this sense, Yo-jong helped open the door for future discussions and meetings between the two countries that would pave the way for the inter-Korean summit between Kim Jong-un and Moon Jae-in on April 27, 2018. This move also built up her own public name recognition globally and improved her growing standing within the North Korea elite as one of the few people Kim Jong-un trusts the most.
As part of the 22-member government delegation sent to South Korea, Yo-jong was also joined by Kim Yong-nam, the President of the Presidium of the Supreme People's Assembly (SPA). A number of civilians were also sent including the Samjyong Orchestra, which was formed to perform in South Korea as part of the overall celebrations.
During the period of the Olympics, Yo-jong attended the opening ceremony, watched a hockey match, and met with several South Korean dignitaries including President Moon Jae-in himself, during which she delivered Kim Jong-un’s invitation for him to travel to Pyongyang. And while Yo-jong did not attend the closing ceremony, SPA Presidium member General Kim Yong-chol did, continuing the highest levels of North Korean representation throughout the events.
In contrast to Yo-jong’s engaging behavior, U.S. Vice President Mike Pence was noted as looking “stony face” during the opening ceremony, perhaps reflecting the Trump administration policy of ‘maximum pressure’ toward North Korea. However, relations would soon begin to thaw.
After a flurry of lower-level meetings in March and early April, on April 27 the first inter-Korean summit in eleven years took place. It was the first meeting between Kim Jong-un and Moon Jae-in and the summit gave rise to the Panmunjom Declaration for Peace, Prosperity and Reunification of the Korean Peninsula.
The Panmunjom Declaration was largely a reiteration of the goals found in previous agreements, with some previsions recalling the 2000 June 15th North–South Joint Declaration and the 2007 North–South Summit Declaration, namely to seek reunification on joint Korean terms, end hostilities, engage in economic cooperation, and develop a step-by-step process toward further cooperation and peace.
The Panmunjom Declaration did make some progress, however, in that it directly called for an official end to the Korean War (which is technically still ongoing) and gave a more detailed outline for how to accomplish the broader goals of the agreement. This included the creation of a North-South liaison office in Kaesong and connecting the countries through the Donghae and Gyeongui railways.
Additionally, both sides agreed to remove loudspeakers along the DMZ that have blasted propaganda into each country off and on for decades, and they agreed to put an end to sending balloons across the DMZ which is something North Korea, in particular, has long complained about.
The move against balloons, which are often sent across by South Korean civilian groups, would expose the South Korean government to considerable criticism by civil rights activists as the government signaled its willingness to prosecute citizens for sending anything over the DMZ, including money and USBs of popular television shows.
But while the domestic political issues took on a life of its own, both Koreas continued their engagement and two more inter-Korean summits were held in 2018.
At the same time, efforts were underway to bring an end to the rising antagonism between North Korea and the United States.
Working Toward a Summit
North Korea’s participation in the Olympics and the Panmunjom Declaration created an opportunity for North Korea and the United States to begin a period of détente. After the bellicose heights of “fire and fury” the year before, a South Korean delegation met with Kim Jong-un in Pyongyang on March 5, 2018 to negotiate future moves toward peace.
Mere days after the Pyongyang meeting, South Korean officials were at the White House where President Trump met with South Korea national security adviser Chung Eui-yong and National Information Director Suh Hoon to discuss their meeting with Kim Jong-un. They then presented Trump with an invitation by Kim Jong-un to eventually meet, with the likely timeframe being in May.
However, as Ankit Panda laid out for the BBC, “There was something profoundly odd about the optics of this announcement. Three South Koreans… stood shoulder-to-shoulder speaking to eagerly-gathered reporters outside the West Wing. Without any American officials present, it very much placed this entire diplomatic initiative in South Korea's hands. One could easily walk away sensing that the United States wasn't entirely enthusiastic about this endeavor.”
This framing of the U.S. mood was indeed correct. Although President Trump accepted Kim Jong-un’s invitation “on the spot”, as the details of the meeting began to be planned, the United States reiterated its policy that North Korea must take “concrete and verifiable steps” toward denuclearization prior to any summit and that sanctions against the country would remain in place until an agreement is made between the two countries.
Kim Jong-un appeared to have foreseen these demands and preemptively placed a self-imposed moratorium on further nuclear tests and agreed it would dismantle certain missile and nuclear sites including at the Sohae Satellite Launching Station, a test stand at the Iha-ri military base, and close the Punggye-ri nuclear test site. The moratorium had already been agreed to back on March 5, but Kim Jong-un didn’t make a formal announcement until April 20 saying, the country is doing this to “prove the vow to suspend nuclear [testing]”.
While this gave Pyongyang an air of sincerity as a good-faith actor, eager to follow through with the summit just a few weeks away, some analysts felt that the move had more to do with the fact that North Korea simply didn’t need to conduct any more nuclear tests as it had already accomplished what it needed.
During this time, South Korea was also meeting with China and Japan to continue laying groundwork and working out the ultimate details of the summit.
As opportunities grew through the Olympics and into March, Kim Jong-un held a clandestine meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping on March 25-28, marking his first visit with the Chinese leader. During the two-day meeting, the leaders discussed matters of denuclearization and improving ties between the longstanding allies. This meeting was followed by others, all publicly announced, which ended up bringing China into helping to orchestrate the future Trump-Kim summit.
This was an important development as the Trump administration had insisted since the 2016 presidential campaign that China take a more direct role in resolving the nuclear issue and in upholding United Nations’ sanctions against North Korea.
Despite the trepidation on behalf of some in the administration, the U.S. began to take a more active role in setting up a summit. On April 1, 2018, then-CIA Director Mike Pompeo went on a secret meeting in Pyongyang to talk about the nuclear issue and to help clear the way for the Trump-Kim summit expected in May or June as South Korea announced back in March. Of particular interest for the summit was trying to agree on a location. The Trump administration had offered four politically neutral sites, Ulaanbaatar, Stockholm, Geneva, or Singapore. It was also floated that Seoul, Pyongyang, or Panmunjom on the DMZ could host the summit.
Things seemed to be moving in a generally positive and forward motion until on April 29, 2018, U.S. National Security Advisor John Bolton referenced Libya as a model for how to deal with North Korea, as Gaddafi had given up Libya’s nuclear program for sanctions relief in 2002-03. Bolton had long been hawkish on foreign policy regarding North Korea and other “rogue nations”, and generally preferred military action to continued diplomacy.
Bolton’s hawkishness meant that his statement toward North Korea carried with it overtones of a threat, as despite the denuclearization agreement by Libya, less than a decade later, Gaddafi was under air attack by NATO forces as the Libyan Revolution raged on in 2011. He was eventually shot and sodomized in a drain culvert by opposing forces while trying to escape after the Battle of Sirte.
Pyongyang has often referred to Libya as an example of why one should never relinquish nuclear weapons and why North Korea can’t trust the United States, as the U.S. and the West eventually facilitated Gaddafi’s disposition and death (along with Saddam Hussein’s) despite their nuclear and WMD capitulation.
Indeed, Dr. Guo Yu, principal Asia analyst at the global risk consultancy Verisk Maplecroft said that Kim Jong-un has learned this lesson well, “We see in Libya and Iraq countries who gave up their WMD programs, and foreign power campaigns that led to a regime change,…To safeguard against that, North Korea [is] firmly in the belief that they need to have credible nuclear deterrent…”
So, whether or not Bolton’s comments were an unforced error or a less-than-subtle attempt to derail the summit process is up for debate. Regardless, with pressure from China and after some substantial “explanations” by the Trump administration, saying that Bolton was only referring to the positive outcomes of 2002-03 and not ultimately to regime change, the summit process was back on track.
This was especially true as tensions eased further after North Korea released three American prisoners it had been holding for as long as 31 months. Kim Dong-chul, Kim Sang-duk, and Kim Hak-song were released to the newly confirmed Mike Pompeo as Secretary of State and landed at Joint Andrews Airforce Base in Washington, DC on May 10.
Despite the summit preparations having resumed, the risk of cancelation was always near the surface. In yet another ‘unforced error’, on May 17 President Trump threatened North Korea with “Libya’s fate” if a deal wasn’t made. Unlike Bolton’s comments earlier in the month, Trump’s comments weren’t a subtle or oblique threat to regime change. It was directly threatening war.
Trump’s words could easily be seen as hyperbole and another example of him not thinking before he spoke, but a few days later U.S. Vice President Mike Pence, who was seen as a more thoughtful and reasoned person also echoed the threat, “this will only end like the Libyan model ended if Kim Jong-un doesn't make a deal”.
This incensed the North Koreans and vice foreign minister Choe Son-hui said that the comments were threatening a nuclear showdown. Then on May 24, Trump called off the summit citing North Korea’s “open hostility” in a letter to Kim Jong-un. However, he also left the door open for continuing talks of a summit if Kim were to “change [his] mind”.
Ironically, May 24 was also the day that North Korea demolished the tunnel entrances to the Punggye-ri nuclear test site.
By any historic standard of dealing with North Korea, this would have ended the entire thing. But North Korea almost reached out immediately, with Kim Jong-un saying, “We would like to make known to the US side once again that we have the intent to sit with the US side to solve problem(s) regardless of ways at any time”.
In another high-level meeting, vice chair of the Central Committee of the Workers' Party of Korea, Kim Yong-chol, met with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in New York City on May 30 to further negotiate the summit issue. He was the highest-level official to travel to the United States since 2000.
Then on June 1, President Trump announced that the summit would happen after all, following the "very nice statement" by North Korea sent to President Trump and other overtures. The location and date would be the same as announced (back on May 10) prior to the cancellation: Singapore on June 12.
How much of a problem the week-long cancellation caused to setting up the summit isn’t known, but both sides began final preparations without skipping a beat the moment the announcement to resume was made.
Singapore and Hanoi
Although Kim has the use of a Soviet-era Ilyushin-62M passenger jet as a kind of “Pyongyang One”, the plane has been retired by all other national operators except for use in carrying cargo. Its age and the extreme distance of 4,700 km meant that Kim needed a different way to get to the summit.
After some negotiations and China playing on Kim’s fear of long-distance flights, it was decided that Kim would borrow a much more modern and safe Boeing 747 owned by Beijing, with the Ilyushin-62M traveling along as a transport for Kim Yo-jong and other officials. An Ilyushin-76 also traveled from Pyongyang carrying food and other items.
Venue scouting, security, deciding where the media events would be held, and other logistics were all finalized in June and included substantial assistance from the government of Singapore including the government’s agreement to pay for the hotel bills of the North Korean delegation. In the end, it is estimated that Singapore paid a total of $11.9 million to host the summit.
Kim Jong-un was the first to arrive, landing in Singapore in the afternoon of June 10. He was followed by President Trump who arrived in Singapore at 8:20 pm after having left the G7 meeting earlier than planned that was happening in Canada. Trump was excited for the summit and tweeted out, “It will certainly be an exciting day and I know that Kim Jong Un will work very hard to do something that rarely been done before. Create peace and great prosperity for his land.”
Before both men retired to their respective hotels, Kim at the St. Regis and Trump at the Shangri-La Hotel, Kim met with Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and Trump met with him that Monday for a working lunch.
Monday saw a series of meetings between U.S. and Singapore officials and between North Korea and Singapore, as well as several press briefings. Kim Jong-un also took this opportunity to tour the city with his sister. Kim has been known to take part in the leisure and touristy facilities available in North Korea, like enjoying rides during the opening of the Rungna Peoples’ Pleasure Grounds in 2012 and visiting the country’s ski resorts. So it was little surprise that he would want to take one the rare times he left his homeland to play tourist for the day, as the following day would be all about business.
That Tuesday began with the sun shining and both men traveling to the summit venue at the Capella Resort amid heavy security. The official start to the proceedings was at 9:05 am and they met and shook hands for the first time. Afterward, a one-on-one meeting between the leaders was held followed by an expanded meeting involving various officials from both countries.
After the expanded bilateral meeting, the two men joined each other for a working lunch and then took a walk around the grounds of the resort where President Trump briefly showed off ‘the Beast’ to Kim who seemed very interested in the presidential limousine as US Secret Service agents tried to limit access to photographers from seeing too much of the notoriously classified interior.
Soon after, Trump and Kim sat down to sign a joint statement. Part of the statement reads, “President Trump committed to provide security guarantees to the DPRK, and Chairman Kim Jong Un reaffirmed his firm and unwavering commitment to complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.”
It also included four provisions:
- The United States and the DPRK commit to establish new U.S.–DPRK relations in accordance with the desire of the peoples of the two countries for peace and prosperity.
- The United States and the DPRK will join their efforts to build a lasting and stable peace regime on the Korean Peninsula.
- Reaffirming the April 27, 2018 Panmunjom Declaration, the DPRK commits to work toward complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.
- The United States and the DPRK commit to recovering POW/MIA remains, including the immediate repatriation of those already identified.
Although the statement didn’t bring about any brand new agreements and wasn’t legally binding, it was nonetheless an “epochal event of great significance in overcoming decades of tensions and hostilities between the two countries and for the opening up of a new future”.
The summit closed with a U.S. press conference where President Trump called the meetings a success and unilaterally announced the end of joint military exercises with the South Korean military without first consulting South Korea. He also expressed a desire for the eventual removal of all U.S. military personnel on the peninsula. These two things have long been sought after by North Korea but the U.S. had always resisted the moves until after a denuclearized North Korea. Trump, it seems, was about to give away the store.
However, despite the overall positive nature of the summit and the excitement for the future it generated, once Trump was back in Washington, the pragmatic realities of the situation sank back in.
Although claiming victory and tweeting that North Korea was no longer a nuclear threat to the United States, his official actions told a different story. He extended Executive Order 13466 because “the current existence and risk of the proliferation of weapons-usable fissile material on the Korean Peninsula constitute an unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security and foreign policy of the United States, and I hereby declare a national emergency to deal with that threat.”
Continuing with the undertakings, Mike Pompeo met with WPK vice chairman General Kim Yong-chol in Pyongyang in July, but according to the North Korean’s, U.S. demands displayed a “gangster-like attitude”. Negative assessments of future negotiations that were held with Pompeo and other officials would continue to be made by North Korea, revealing deep differences between how each side viewed the proceedings and how they thought denuclearization should take place.
Concurrently, the regime still publicly claimed to hold out hope for a peace brokered directly between the two leaders.
Despite knowing that coming to peace with North Korea wasn’t actually going to be as simple as a summit and a few tweets, both men did heavily rely on their developing personal relationships with each other to try to keep the process moving forward. Trump and Kim exchanged a series of letters with Trump even exclaiming that they “fell in love” during one political rally. Analysts often say that Kim Jong-un was playing on President Trump’s ego through effusive praise and using honorifics such as “your excellency”, nonetheless, the letters did seem to extend the life of the peace negotiations.
Still, more was needed. To try and avoid having the process stall out, plans for a second summit were confirmed by the White House on Sept. 11, 2018 to be held in the “not too distant future”.
Kim Jong-un had been pushing for sanctions relief and disagreements with the U.S. over how much relief and when repeatedly became a key issue. The U.S. was also becoming frustrated by North Korea’s concessions to dismantle one nuclear or missile facility while continuing work at multiple others, all despite also saying that they no longer wished to test nuclear weapons.
These contradictions caused lower-level meetings to be canceled only to later be rescheduled. Even so, Kim said during 2019 New Years’ speech that he was willing to again meet with Trump anytime. Soon after, vice chair Kim Yong Chol traveled to D.C. to meet with Secretary of State Pompeo and President Trump.
Two months later, Trump told the world during his 2019 State of the Union address that a second summit would be held, this time in Vietnam on February 27-28.
Like his father, Kim Jong-un prefers to travel in one of his six armored trains. After the embarrassment of needing to borrow a Chinese jet to get to Singapore, Kim opted to use this slower (but far more luxurious method) of travel to Hanoi. He arrived at the Đồng Đăng railway station on Feb. 26.
The summit was held at the Metropole Hotel in Hanoi on Feb. 27-28, with a one-on-one meeting held first followed by a dinner. While it seemed to have some initial success on the first day, it was abruptly ended on the second day with no further agreements reached.
Concessions, like shuttering the nuclear facility at Yongbyon, was sought by Trump and offered by Kim but the U.S. would not offer to do anything upfront, only after North Korea carried out its part of the agreement, leaving Kim with even less leverage should the administration choose not to end sanctions.
Contradictions in Trump’s demands and other statements had further added Kim Jong-un’s growing loss of patience, especially after Trump had also acknowledged North Korea’s ‘good behavior’ back in 2018, “The hostages are back. There have been no tests. There have been no rockets going up for a period of nine months, and I think the relationships are very good, so we'll see how that goes.” That good behavior had largely continued throughout 2019, so North Korea would naturally see itself as abiding by previous agreements.
The administration’s demands, however, were not viewed by Kim to be followed up with ‘corresponding measures’ such as permanently ending joint military drills with South Korea or easing specific sanctions. And it must be said that North Korea, whether earnestly seeking peace through denuclearization or not, did actively concede far more than the U.S. ever did.
Hanoi also underscored the fact that North Korea’s definition of “denuclearization” is somewhat different than America’s, with North Korea including the removal of nuclear-capable bombers from the peninsula, a nuclear no-first-use guarantee by the United States, and the quick removal of U.S. personnel from South Korea – all prior to North Korea giving up its last remaining nuclear bomb. And it underscored that the administration didn’t seem to realize North Korea viewed the world in different terms.
It can’t be said that the summit failed just due to the Trump administration, as North Korea’s public words and covert actions rarely lined up together, but the possibility of a summit without any new agreements could, in the words of Ankit Panda, be seen a mile away exactly because of these misunderstandings and lop-sided actions.
The view that total disarmament before sanctions relief was doomed to failure (and that an incremental arms control policy would bear more fruit) was echoed by Doug Brandow, a former special assistant to President Ronald Reagan, who said that “[Trump] apparently pushed for the full monty, an all nukes for all sanctions deal, which was never realistic.” And then he compared the US-DPRK summits to that of the US and the USSR at Reykjavik in 1986 saying, “A failure to agree does not doom the relationship. Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev did not join in Reykjavik to eliminate nuclear weapons. But they ultimately agreed to other arms limitations and ended the Cold War.”
Making matters worse, it was later revealed by John Bolton that Trump had given Kim a note during the second day telling him to surrender all of his nuclear weapons and nuclear fuel to the United States before any sanctions relief. It was at that point that Kim Jong-un canceled the rest of the summit.
The Party Ends, Back to Isolation
In one last attempt at getting things back on track, Kim Jong-un sent Trump another letter. North Korea’s Foreign Ministry also released a statement calling President Trump the “supreme leader of the United States”; once again playing to his ego. Through these overtures, Kim asked for another meeting with Trump.
The final Trump-Kim summit was held on June 30, 2019. This trilateral meeting involved President Trump, Kim Jong-un, and South Korean president Moon Jae-in, but it was little more than a photo opportunity as President Trump stepped over the military demarcation line (the de facto border) at Panmunjom into North Korea. No further deals were made and the meeting only lasted a few hours.
Symbolically, this gave Kim Jong-un an enormous domestic boost as this was the first time a sitting American president had been on North Korean soil, but nothing of substance was achieved.
With Kim walking away with greater domestic legitimacy (having been the first North Korean leader to bring the Yankees to heel) and with denuclearization becoming an intractable issue yet again, the gulf between the two countries became even more clear.
Momentum toward a substantial, enforceable agreement began to stall even though lower-level talks continued, and as domestic forces in South Korea and the U.S. started to draw attention away onto other matters.
Even after President Trump eventually fired John Bolton, citing his Libya comments, tensions still rose. North Korea conducted missiles tests in August 2019 for the first time since November 29, 2017 and joint US-ROK military drills also began again.
But despite relations cooling between Pyongyang and the rest of the international community, the situation didn’t immediately devolve into disaster. Some of the agreed upon measures between North and South Korea were still carried out including the establishment of the Inter-Korean Liaison Office in Kaesong and on Nov. 24, 2018, the United Nations greenlit the inter-Korean joint field study on connecting the two countries via rail. The project’s groundbreaking followed on December 26 (although, there has been little additional progress).
And in one of the more visually dramatic moves of the 2018-2019 peace process, both countries carried out the demolition of several guard posts along the DMZ in late 2018 as a gesture showing their commitment to eventually dismantle the Demilitarized Zone.
Although bilateral relations between North and South Korea have improved in the last few years, particularly as Moon Jae-in has sought to maintain a personal relationship with Kim, things have not been without substantial controversy that could usher in more opposition politicians as elections are held in South Korea.
Creating particular consternation within South Korea has been Moon’s willingness to step on freedom of speech and other civil liberties in an attempt to appease Kim Jong-un. This includes banning sending balloons and leaflets across the border and cracking down on human rights activists. This has created a lot of internal pressure to change tactics regarding North Korea and made it more difficult for Moon to carry out his preferred policies toward the DPRK.
Evidence of continued hostile feelings and cracks in the process were obvious even throughout the summit process. Even though Kim Jong-un held three summits with President Trump and three with President Moon, the threats coming from North Korea didn’t stop. And sometimes, they were quite severe.
Following the summits, this boiled to the surface. As part of Kim Jong-un’s pressure campaign on President Moon, he had Kim Yo-jong write on June 13, 2020 what can only be described as an op-ed in her own name (an extremely rare occurrence in North Korea) threatening to pull out of the 2018 Panmunjom Declaration if activists weren’t stopped from sending balloons over the DMZ. This was followed up a day later by a statement from the Workers’ Party of Korea in support of the threats.
Another one of the threats was to shutter the Inter-Korean Liaison Office located in the Kaesong Industrial Region that had been established in 2018.
Establishing the office, which had been placed inside of an existing building, cost South Korea $8.6 million in renovation expenses and was meant to serve as a de facto embassy as neither country has formal diplomatic relations with the other.
The threats were soon seen through when on June 16, 2020, an explosion rocked Kaesong. The Inter-Korea Liaison Office had been blown up. The demolition occurred on what was the 20th anniversary of the first inter-Korean summit.
While South Korea said it would “respond strongly” if North Korea continued to raise tensions, nothing of note actually happened in retaliation.
And in protest to joint South Korea-U.S. military exercises that began on August 16, 2020, Kim had the Seoul-Pyongyang Hotline cut in September. The phone line connects the two countries and is also supposed to allow for direct communication between both leaders in the event of an emergency. It wasn’t until October 4 that the hotline was confirmed to have been restored.
Rising tensions on the peninsula are only one facet of North Korea’s slide back toward belligerence and isolation.
North Korea has tested missiles 39 times since the start of 2019, returning to the pre-2017 era when Kim Jong-un had tested more missiles than Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il combined. Reports on their nuclear facilities at Yongbyon, Kangson, and Pyongsan all prove that North Korea’s nuclear program is still very much active. And the United Nations has released multiple Panel of Expert reports detailing North Korea’s illicit trade activities ranging from smuggling in oil to selling coal and counterfeit goods.
North Korea also took an active role in isolating itself further in response to COVID-19. Scores of diplomatic staff and their families have been forced to leave the country, even via hand-powered, open-topped rail trollies in freezing weather.
It has been theorized that the real reason behind this expulsion of foreigners is to further limit the flow of information into the country which strengthens the regime. Additionally, Pyongyang has engaged in crackdowns on “non-socialist behavior” as several new restrictions, particularly aimed at North Korean youth, have been implemented since the start of COVID.
COVID also provided a raison d'etre to further attack market activities and strive for greater centralization, with Kim reversing his more open attitude toward economic activity in his early days.
Even the World Food Program left the country, leaving North Korea with no UN or NGO workers in the country and almost no foreign nationals of any kind.
While 2021 has provided minor hope that the ‘blockade’ of trade and travel won’t last forever, as preparations are being made to resume limited trade with China, there are no signs that North Korea will soon return to a pre-COVID state.
Stories of national salvation have helped propel and preserve the Kim family’s power. Kim Il-sung saved the country from the Japanese and later from the Americans. Kim Jong-il saved the country from being overrun during its weakest point since the Korean War as a result of famine and the collapse of international communism. Kim Jong-un, it would seem, has been attempting to save the country for its own future. He has focused on ‘moving the revolution forward’ to create a North Korea capable of standing alone on the world stage with both military credibility and diplomatic credibility.
He has thus far accomplished this through parallel tracks of weapon development and diplomatic maneuvering; however, the lasting effects of Pyongyang’s engagements are in question. Although Kim did manage to buy time and to bully South Korea into passing some very undemocratic laws, he seems to have squandered much of the goodwill and international willingness to cooperate through his actions since the summits.
While the country is preparing to resume trade with China as the threats posed by COVID-19 wane, the broader international community appears to be even less willing to engage as Pyongyang’s illicit activities have been described in ever greater detail and as North Korea gets back to missile testing.
Despite the initial promise of the summits with South Korea and the United States, North Korea seems to be just as isolated as a decade ago.
Complicating matters has been that the new Biden administration has been slow to develop its own North Korea policies and didn’t appoint a special representative for North Korea until May 21, 2021. This limits Washington’s ability to engage with the country and made high-level talks far less likely for the near future. This leaves Kim up to his own devices to drive events, as he continues to search for ways to bring the U.S. back to the table in the hopes of ending sanctions and gaining other concessions.
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